Rites of passage

How we forgot tribal wisdom in dealing with change


Change is an important part of life. To live is to change. Therefore, rites of passage are an important part of many cultures. Change is slow. You can’t put a deadline on it. However, in the western world we stubbornly seem to think we can change overnight. We’ve seen plenty of bad examples of this. Such as merging two companies with wildly different cultures. These mergers often do not go well despite the promise of so called “synergies”. But also in learning a new skill or in dealing with a bad review at work we expect to “change” in a short amount of time. So what can we learn from tribal rites of passage?

Process of change

Whether dealing with a new skill that you must learn, dealing with a bad review or changing jobs, we need to deal with the unknown. This is something we find difficult. However, in the West we prefer to skip this phase. For instance, when a company merges with another company, we make an agreement in lot’s of difficult legal terms and then expect that the merger will automatically also be very successful (otherwise, the companies would not merge). Consequently, management is surprised to find that the “old crew” still has barbecues with only people from the original company.

So in the West we (sometimes) see change as a 2 phase process. You have the old state and then we immediately have the new state. However, in reality change is a 3 phase process (separation, liminality and re-integration).

How boys in tribes change from child to adulthood

In the Ndembu tribe, the rite of passage starts with a night of celebration. Here the boys are prepared for their time of separation from the tribe. After this celebration, they are chased away from their village (separation phase). The boys are taken to the forest with a Shaman, who teaches them the skills which they will need in adulthood (liminal phase). This is the phase were all the growth takes place for these boys, which will help them in adulthood. Once they know everything, the boys (who are now men) are taken back to the tribe. Of course, the return is celebrated again as part of the final phase, the re-integration phase.


Key learnings of these rites of passage

Although we also have these types of rites (for instance in marriage, with an engagement period, bachelor party and then the marriage itself), we do not seem to apply it within our job or organization.

So what can we do when faced with a change? It is important for yourself that you identify being in the liminal phase / in between phase. This is full of uncertainty and pain, but it is very important that you also recognize this as a period of growth and learn from the experience. Letting the uncertainty be there is an important part of this.

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Don’t forget to view the Youtube clip on Lobsters below – it’s strangely related to this topic 😉. Find out why.

Further reads:

  • Book: The corporate tribe by Danielle Braun and Jitske Kramer

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